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John Wesley's reluctance turned into a mission after encounter at Aldersgate

John Wesley's reluctance turned into a mission after encounter at Aldersgate

Denominational News Missions and Outreach

On the night of May 24, 1738, John Wesley accepted an invitation to what was called a “religious meeting” on Aldersgate Street in London. However, he wasn't exactly fired up to go.

He was tired and mentally dragging, and as he noted in his journal, he went "very unwillingly,” but he went anyway. He couldn't have imagined what God had in mind for him that evening and where that would lead, or how that seemingly insignificant decision would send unceasing ripples throughout history.

At around 8:45 p.m., while listening to a reading of Martin Luther's Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, something supernatural happened. Wesley wrote that he felt his heart "strangely warmed."

He wrote, "I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death."

But that was far from the end of it. Such knowledge needs to be shared, and that warmth turned into an inferno that still burns 285 years later. God had work for John and his brother, Charles Wesley, to do. Charles had his “heartwarming experience” on May 21, three days before John.

And with that, a movement that we know today as Methodism was ignited. United Methodists throughout the land celebrate Aldersgate Sunday on May 21, remembering what happened all those years ago and how God turns ordinary into extraordinary.

Through the Aldersgate experience in London and his move to Bristol, England, God revealed to John Wesley a truth contrary to what he and the established Church of England believed at the time. David Worthington, Director of Global Relationships at John Wesley's New Room in Bristol, explains.

"John used to say, 'I cannot save souls unless it's in a church,’ " Worthington said during a recent presentation at The Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church office in Lakeland. 

David Worthington

"I believe that after what happened to John Wesley following his arrival in Bristol in April 1739, with what happened at Aldersgate, was that his heart caught fire. That's when he said, 'I look upon all the world as my parish.'"

That philosophy still serves as a pillar of the United Methodist Church today.

"For me, as someone working in campus ministry and college students, I think it's a good model for young people today that aren't wedded to church in four walls," said Wyatt R. Robinson, Associate Chaplain at Florida Southern College in Lakeland.

"We have plenty of examples in Methodism, where we see the world as our mission field. David inspired me to think a lot about that."

Bristol's importance

John and Charles Wesley had returned to England after a mission trip to convert American Indians (Wesley's term) in Savannah, Ga., at the invitation of General James Oglethorpe.

The trip to Georgia did not go well.

As the General Commission on Archives and History notes, "The next two years were very difficult ones for the Wesley brothers."

Charles chafed at his role as Oglethorpe's secretary, while John had a disastrous romantic involvement, and he found the natives were not receptive to his message.

"I came to convert the Indians, but, oh, who will convert me?" he wrote in his journal.

Upon returning to England, John struggled to focus on how to proceed. That changed after his encounter at Aldersgate, but even that season had challenges.

After Aldersgate, John Wesley represented a new way of thinking about religion. He took that approach to Bristol, a seaport about 120 miles west of London. 

"We're a very rebellious type in Bristol," Worthington said. "We're a city of rebels, which is why John Wesley got along so well with us. I think John picked up on Bristol's ability to be a bit different."

But not too different, at least not the establishment.

Not everyone bought into the "world is my parish" thing, For perspective, Worthington offered this example of how radical Wesley's approach was at the time.

"The Bishop of Bristol wrote to John Wesley and said, 'You have no standing here, and you should leave."
Wesley's pointed reply: "Until I am led to go somewhere else, here is where I will stay."

And here – meaning Bristol – is where Methodism took off.

Preserving history, launching the future

The building where John experienced Aldersgate in London no longer stands, but history has been preserved at The New Room in Bristol, the launch point for what we know today as Methodism.

Its reason for being is simple: "Our mission is to be a heritage site where people come in and go out renewed."

Bethune-Cookman University student Leonte Tuke joins David Worthington.

What began there has indeed moved far beyond that sanctuary's walls through centuries of change, struggle, and, yes, more than a little rebellion.

Its importance is not lost on the next generation of church leaders as they take the next steps in their Christian journey.

"Hearing about the past in Methodism was thrilling, it really was," Bethune-Cookman University student Leonte Tuke said. "Coming from a missionary background as I do and seeing how it all came together was inspiring.

"Through that example, I can see myself encouraging others in my small world as well. It gave me a lot to think about."

The same is true for Florida Southern graduating senior Cassidy Schmidt. Her father, Rev. Chris Schmidt, is the Senior Pastor at Parrish UMC in Parrish, FL. As a lifelong United Methodist, Cassidy is familiar with the disagreements about the role of LGBTQ+ individuals throughout the denomination.

"Personally, I've navigated it by hearing both sides," she said. "Today, so many people say, 'I'm right, you're wrong' and aren't interested in hearing the other side. If you're not open to having those conversations about that, you'll never learn why they think the way they do." 

Florida Southern freshman Emma Summer (left) joins fellow student Cassidy Schmidt and Associate Chaplain Wyatt Robinson. 

That closed-minded attitude is similar to what John and Charles Wesley faced nearly three centuries ago.

"Hearing about that was an interesting perspective I had never heard before," she said. "Growing up in the Methodist Church, you talk about history, but you never know the specifics. Personally, the history is so deeper than people realize."

That's the main point about the construction of the New Room in Bristol and the Wesleys ministry in the city and why something that happened nearly 300 years ago centuries ago still matters even in today's church. As Charles Wesley said, "God buries his workers, but carries on his work."

That work requires now, as then, seeing the world as a parish, taking the story of Jesus, love, and redemption for all beyond the walls of a building – even if that means rocking the boat.

"This isn't Disneyland we're talking about," Worthington said. "This is the real thing."

Worthington's vast knowledge strikes a chord with United Methodists, many of whom visited the New Room during the Simpkins Wesley Study Retreat.

Rev. Dr. Sharon Austin and her husband, Mike, were among those fortunate to embark on one of the Simpkins retreats more than twenty years ago.

“The retreat contained highlights such as a visit to the New Room. Standing in the space where Methodism was launched was relevant for me as a new UM clergy and was informative and awe-inspiring. Now, years later, given where we are as a denomination, the Simpkins’ gift and David’s presentation help us to celebrate a vibrant, grassroots movement known as Methodism," Rev. Dr. Austin said.

"More importantly, I believe that the historical reminders of our inception lay the groundwork for what Bishop (Tom) Berlin has proclaimed as the work of ‘identity.’ Who we are and seek to become as an inclusive, spirit-filled force for God’s love worldwide began almost three hundred years ago. May the cross and flame of our insignia remind us of Christ’s redemptive work and the Holy Spirit's sanctifying work in our lives."

Indeed, we're all links in that chain that stretches from Aldersgate, to Bristol, and to the worldwide parish that today’s United Methodist Church serves.

And as in all real things, sometimes a little rebellion is just what's needed. 

Joe Henderson is the News Content Editor for

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